in the stacks
I Doubt An attitude of mind. The intellectual oxygen of the legal profession. In the world of the attorney, absolutes are absent, ambiguities abound, and ambivalence is an art form. Supporting the value of doubt, William Shakespeare observed that “modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.” Nowhere does it shine more brightly than in the courtroom. Consider the following, from the Oxford Book of Light Verse, attributed to the acclaimed poet Anon: Mr. Leach made a speech, Angry, neat, but wrong: Mr. Hart, on the other part, Was prosy, dull and long. Mr. Bell spoke very well, Though nobody knew about what; Mr. Tower talk’d for an hour, Sat down, fatigued, and hot. Mr. Parker made the case darker, Which was dark enough without; Mr. Cooke quoted his book, And the Chancellor said, I doubt. The Chancellor in question may well have been Lord Chancellor Eldon, whose crowning achievement during the reigns of George III and IV was the development of equity into a working body of legal principles. He also presided over the resulting procedural quagmire and dilatory practices later described by Charles Dickens in Bleak House, in which the members of the High Court of Chancery are “mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities ....” Reflecting upon his many years as Chancellor and the complaints about his doubts and delays, Lord Eldon remarked, “I always thought it better to allow myself to doubt before I decided, than to expose myself to the misery after I had decided, of doubting whether I had decided rightly and justly.” Some years later on this side of the Great Pond, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes summed up the value of doubt: “To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.” And, we might add, of a learned profession. By this standard, civilization entered a second renaissance with the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in McConnell v. F.E.C., 540 U.S. 93, 124 S.Ct. 619 (2003) in which the lower court was affirmed in part and reversed in part in a 273-page opinion:
37 | Willamette Lawyer
Lord Chancellor Eldon
Justice Scalia concurred in part, concurred in judgment in part, dissented in part, and filed opinion. Justice Thomas concurred in part, concurred in result in part, concurred in judgment in part, dissented in part, and filed opinion in which Justice Scalia joined in part. Justice Kennedy concurred in judgment in part, dissented in part, and filed opinion in which Chief Justice Rehnquist joined and Justices Scalia and Thomas joined in part. Chief Justice Rehnquist dissented in part and filed opinion in which Justices Scalia and Kennedy joined. Justice Stevens dissented in part and filed opinion in which Justices Ginsburg and Breyer joined. Only Justices O’Connor and Souter restrained themselves from casting further doubt on the wisdom of the majority opinion which, only seven years later in a 5-4 decision, was reversed in part and affirmed in part in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 130 S.Ct. 876 (2010). One might describe this as an exercise in “Extreme Judicial Doubt.” Doubt — reasonable, real, substantial and otherwise — lives on in the cradle of civilization known as the law library.